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Don't ask, don't tell, don't go: as the U.S. gears up for war with Iraq, the military is selectively disregarding its policy against gay service members. (Military).

When Thang Nguyen, a U.S. Navy ensign, came out to his commanding officer in a letter last December, he had every reason to expect an immediate discharge. After all, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was still firmly in place. Even though President Bush authorized the Pentagon to issue a "stop-loss" order, which suspended most other military discharges just prior to launching the war on terrorism, gay discharges were to continue.

For 31-year-old Nguyen, who had emigrated from Vietnam at age 10 and realized a long-standing ambition to serve in the U.S. armed forces, the decision to end his career was not an easy one. But after years of witnessing homophobic slurs and threats--including hearing "officers saying that gays should be imprisoned ... shot and ... tortured"--Nguyen no longer felt safe and concluded he had no choice but to get out.

In his letter he detailed his experiences and expressed his fear that by staying closeted in the military he would always be "at risk of investigation, involuntary discharge, and even criminal prosecution." Reluctantly, he requested to be discharged.

The request, to Nguyen's surprise, was denied. A letter from his commanding officer explained that Nguyen's simply stating his sexual orientation, without providing evidence that he is likely to engage in "homosexual acts," did not constitute a reason for separation.

It was a new twist to "don't ask, don't tell" for Nguyen's lawyer Sharra E. Greer, who also is legal director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has been fighting the military's antigay policy since its inception in 1994. "We would love it if that really were the case," she says. "But that has not been regulation up until this point, and it certainly is not the statute, which does qualify a statement of your [homosexuality] as a homosexual act."

Presumably, the policy would leave little room for personal discretion. Yet increasingly, commanding officers have been creatively reinterpreting "don't ask, don't tell" in an apparent effort to retain gay and lesbian service members.

Take the case of 32-year-old Roy Hill, a naval hospitalman who came out to his commanding officer in a letter in May. A tall, muscular man who has participated in Ironman competitions, Hill was not himself a target of harassment because he was not perceived to be gay. "And in the military it's those who are perceived as gay who suffer the harassment, mistreatment, and in some cases, worse events," he says.

But during his three years of service he says he witnessed antigay hostility in every command and was forced to keep silent about his own sexual orientation. In his first tour of duty, Hill says, one female member of the company who was "not ultrafeminine and appeared to be gay" was the constant target of inflammatory jokes and was consistently called "bull dyke."

Bearing witness to such events and seeing commanding officers turn a blind eye turns closeted straight-looking soldiers into silent coconspirators, Hill says. And that took an emotional toll on him, as did his continued denial of his own identity. "I had learned a lot about myself and wanted to stay truer to who I am and accepting of who I am," he says.

Eventually the pressure led to Hill coming out to his commanding officer. He expected, as Nguyen did, to be discharged, but his commanding officer decided otherwise. In explaining the decision to retain Hill, Lt. Col. T.L. Miller said that homosexual conduct is grounds for separation only if the commanding officer has received "credible evidence of such conduct." Hill's lawyer, SLDN's Paula Neira, was informed that naval policy allowed for retaining an openly gay service member "for the good of the service."

That clause, however vague, does exist. But given that "don't ask, don't tell" is predicated on the notion that homosexuality and military service are incompatible, it's a loophole not often used. Steve May, an Army reserve lieutenant who was threatened with discharge in 1999 after he disclosed his sexual orientation during his work as an Arizona state representative, argued in court that the military could legally retain him for the good of the service.

"The military argued in response that the provision could only be invoked if the service member was trying to avoid military service," May says. "But since I was trying to stay in, I had to be kicked out."

If that logic sounds counterintuitive, it's just one example of many in a policy fraught with contradictions, according to opponents of "don't ask, don't tell."

"In general, the military lets gay people serve during wars and then fires them during peacetime," says Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military in Santa Barbara, Calif. "But the whole reason for firing gays in the first place is that supposedly they undermine combat performance. If that's true, then shouldn't they be firing people during wars instead of retaining them?"

But with Operation Enduring Freedom still under way and a war with Iraq looming large, all branches of the service are under intense pressure to retain as many capable soldiers as they can. And that might explain why SLDN is now seeing "many more commands reluctant to separate gay service members who previously they would have been quick to discharge," Greer says. Hill agrees: Because he epitomized the kind of strength, masculinity, and leadership that are so valued in the armed forces, "there was a lot of resistance to release me."

And while that may sound like a small victory for gay and lesbian military personnel, it's actually left those who've suffered discrimination and harassment in a precarious position. While Hill has since been discharged in October--thanks to SLDN's efforts and intervention from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)--Nguyen still faces another four years of service. He is working with SLDN to resolve the issue and could not comment for this article because of the ongoing negotiations. "Now everyone knows he's gay," Greer says. "But they've not made any assurances that they will protect his safety or him from harassment or protect his career. So he's sort of left in limbo."

SLDN, which typically works to defend gay service members' right to serve in the military, also is left in the awkward position--using a law, which they want abolished, to get gay and lesbian soldiers out of the military. And while Greer says that springing gay soldiers "is not our goal, not our mission, and not what we try to do," she insists that the military can't have it both ways: hunting down gay personnel and ruining their careers while simultaneously forcing others to remain in unsafe environments. By publicizing these cases, SLDN hopes to raise awareness about the fundamental flaws in the policy and the capriciousness of the military's decisions to either discharge or retain. "A lot of people thought `don't ask, don't tell' was a compromise that worked," Greer says. "They don't understand that it's a ban on service."

Up until now the Bush administration has kept fairly quiet about the military's policy regarding gay service members, but a large-scale invasion of Iraq--which would require many more troops on the ground than the operation in Afghanistan--could force the issue to center stage. "If we go to war, all military issues will become of more interest," Greer says, "and regardless of how the military deals with gay discharges--whether they keep people or kick them out--they're going to have to do something publicly."

If, as in wars past, the military follows an informal "stop-loss" policy and retains openly gay and lesbian service members, advocates such as SLDN hope they can train a spotlight on the contradiction and make it clear that it's "don't ask, don't tell"--and not homosexuality--that's incompatible with military service.

Hill, whose experience with the military inspired him to change career tracks and pursue a degree in politics or law, says he sympathizes with the military's predicament, but its flawed policy will continue to be a deal breaker for many competent talented service members. "It's difficult--especially now, with wartime--footing for them, to let go of someone who may not be easily replaced," he says. "I understand, from their perspective, it is a manpower issue. But from my perspective, it was an emotional issue--it's a life issue."


Do you think a war in Iraq would change the position on allowing gay military personnel to serve openly?

Find more about "don't ask, don't tell" and other military stories in The Advocate at Prince is executive editor of Chief Executive magazine.
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Article Details
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Author:Prince, C.J.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Nov 26, 2002
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